BOISE – Legislation defining pandemics that would appear to eliminate the current coronavirus pandemic from qualifying as an emergency in Idaho headed to the House on Monday.
The House State Affairs Committee approved the measure, part of the Legislature’s overall effort to limit the powers of the governor during declared emergencies and increase their own.
Specifically, the legislation the committee approved changes a section of Idaho’s State Disaster Preparedness Act by including for the first time definitions of epidemics and pandemics, and setting a minimum death rate for either to qualify as an emergency.
The new section lists the minimum death rate at 1.5%. Numbers provided by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare show that about 170,000 residents have been infected with the coronavirus, and about 1,800 have died, for a death rate of just over 1%. Johns Hopkins University lists the United States’ overall coronavirus death rate at 1.8%, with more than 500,000 recorded deaths.
Republican Rep. Vito Barbieri of Dalton Gardens said he was in favor of the legislation because it set precise numbers.
“If there’s an epidemic and it doesn’t fit within these parameters, at least the Legislature will be able to point to the definitions here and say, ‘Wait a minute, the executive branch may have overstepped its authority here,’ ” he said.
Idaho’s State Disaster Preparedness Act allows an Idaho governor, after having declared an emergency, to issue executive orders and proclamations, which have the force of law.
Republican lawmakers are angry that GOP Gov. Brad Little took some of those actions to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Those actions included a temporary lockdown starting in March, when the virus overwhelmed some hospitals with patients and threatened to do so at others. Hospital workers were also getting sick and said they were in danger of running out of protective equipment.
Knowledge about the coronavirus at the time was limited, with broad estimates of death rates. Much remains unknown about long-term health effects when someone contracts the virus.
But GOP lawmakers bristled at the pandemic rules, especially the lockdown and the designation of some people as “nonessential” workers.
Multiple pieces of legislation have been introduced this year. It’s not yet clear how they will all play out. One measure is a constitutional amendment to ask voters to give part-time lawmakers the ability to call themselves back into session.
Rep. Julianne Young (R-Blackfoot) sponsored the legislation. Responding to questions from Rep. Randy Armstrong (R-Inkom), she said the 1.5% was taken from the Idaho Office of Emergency Management’s 2019 Idaho Emergency Operations Plan.
“So this is pre-COVID,” she said. “There is nothing political about this definition. I haven’t looked exactly at what our current numbers are for this current legislation. This is what the experts estimated what a moderate pandemic or a severe pandemic should be defined as in 2019.”
After the meeting, Young said the new section of code wouldn’t prevent a governor from declaring an emergency in the face of a growing pandemic, such as what arrived in Idaho early last year. She also said that the Legislature, should some of the other legislation pass giving it more power, could vote to keep an emergency disaster in place even if the death rate was under the 1.5%.
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